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WASHINGTON — It’s in America’s interest to protect people around the world, but the hard lessons of recent wars show there are limits, President Barack Obama said Monday in a speech defending his Libya policy and broadly outlining his vision for the use of American military power.

In what’s coming to be called the “Obama doctrine,” the president said America would act alone if necessary to defend itself. But in cases like Libya, where dictator Moammar Gadhafi is threatening his people without directly imperiling America, the United States would continue taking the lead protecting human rights or responding to disasters, but require coalition partners to handle a share of the fighting and the bankrolling.

“In such cases, we will not be afraid to act — but the burden of action should not be America’s alone,” he said, promising the administration would “work with our allies and partners so that they bear their share of the burden and pay their share of the costs.”

As an example of this sharing, the president pointed to the impending NATO takeover of the Libya operation. It’s set to occur Wednesday, less than two weeks after the U.S.-led coalition began attacking Gadhafi’s air defenses and fighting loyalist ground forces that targeted civilians.

He was also careful to stress hard-learned lessons on the limits of U.S. policy. Regime change, which would put America in the hot seat of responsibility for post-war Libya, is not the goal, even though Obama admits the world would be better off without Gadhafi.

“To be blunt, we went down that road in Iraq,” he said, pointing out that “regime change there took eight years, thousands of American and Iraqi lives, and nearly a trillion dollars. That’s not something we can afford to repeat in Libya.”

Critics of Obama’s handling of Libya said Gadhafi himself should be in the crosshairs. As long as the Libyan strongman is in power, said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., civilians will continue to be threatened and the mission will have to continue.

“Gadhafi must have been somewhat comforted by that,” McCain said immediately after the speech. “It was, at least to some degree, counter to the president’s [earlier] statement that Gadhafi must go.”

Another Republican senator said the president has yet to make clear his ultimate goals for the Libya mission.

“When our men and women in uniform are sent into harm’s way, Americans and troops deserve a clear mission from our commander-in-chief, not a speech nine days late,” said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas in a statement on his website. “President Obama failed to explain why he unilaterally took our nation to war without bothering to make the case to the U.S. Congress. And now he’s splitting the difference — telling us Gadhafi must go, but refusing to do what it takes to remove him.”

Indeed, the doctrine is a work in progress, said an analyst for the Atlantic Council, a NATO-oriented Washington think tank.

“I’d be a little careful about making a firm conclusion about the Obama doctrine based on an action the White House didn’t expect 14 days ago,” said Damon Wilson, the group’s executive vice president and a former NATO official.

After a shaky political start, Monday’s speech put into perspective what Obama has actually accomplished in recent weeks — overcoming initial disagreement and constructing and carrying out, in a matter of days, a successful coalition operation to protect civilians, Wilson said. Building on that success, Obama quickly handed responsibility off to NATO.

“When push came to shove, he sided with values, and with those in the administration who cited the right to protect and the right to intervene to support human rights,” he said.

Lawrence J. Korb, a senior fellow at the progressive Center for American Progress and a former assistant secretary of defense, said the administration has moved quickly and skillfully.

“The president took on the arguments of those who said the United States took too long to get involved by pointing out that compared to Bosnia — where it took a year to do anything to protect people — this was very quick,” Korb said. “For those who say we should be conducting regime change, he pointed to Iraq and asked if we want to get into that again.”

In fact, Korb said, the current international action may weaken Gadhafi so much that he falls. If and when that happens, it won’t be America’s responsibility alone to pick up the pieces.


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